By John E. Carey
Peace and Freedom
May 8, 2007
SARS. Bird flu. Contaminated dog food. Contaminated pharmaceuticals. Chickens held off the market. Pigs dying.
“Food fear” is real. There is and should be real fear about the way China, or at least many Chinese firms involved, handle their responsibilities in food and feed manufacturing and development.
Every once in a while a journalist gets to go back into the archieves and find something that was “relevant then and even more important now.”
On Sunday, May 4, 2003, The Washington Times published an article I wrote about SARS. To refresh the memory, SARS is the name given to a sudden (and deadly) repiratory ailment referred to as “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.”
That May 2003 piece was titled “China’s Ham-Handed SARS Response: Omen of The Future In Disease Control?”
The following are some of the quotes or “out takes” from that 2003 essay:
“China is a particularly dangerous nation when envisioning the future of viral infections.”
“It seems as if the Chinese were very slow to react once people started to get sick and die ….. It might have taken the Chinese government two months to even admit that there was a problem.”
“The disease spread to Beijing and Shanghai. Government officials basically fired the mayor of Beijing and his health minister for their apparent cover-up of the extent and importance of the disease.”
“In Chagugang town, up to 2000 villagers torched a school earmarked as a SARS quarantine center. The villagers didn’t want the SARS infected in their neighborhood.”
“We also learned that China lacks sufficient medications, medical staff and hospital facilities to properly service their own population.”
“The World Health Organization estimated that only about 4% of China’s medical professions were prepared for a disease like SARS.”
“SARS deaths are still on the rise in China even though they have stabilized or fallen in Singapore, Vietnam and elsewhere.”
“China has not had a methodical, rigid, disciplined approach to solving this problem. China produced lots of furious activity but much of it ineffective and only for show.
Big headlines boasted that all movie theaters, internet café’s, etc. were closed. But if you really wanted to look around and find an internet café open for business you could. As you enter, they wash your hands with disinfectant and give you a face mask. These are questionable prevention techniques at best. Isolation by quarantine has proven to be the most effective prevention and control method.”
“My colleague in China e-mailed me from an internet café in Beijing right after every newspaper there claimed that the cafes were closed.”
“Once you get out of Beijing – and the further you get from Beijing – the interest in SARS avoidance and precautions remains low if it exists at all.”
“Another problem is at play here. People who think they are sick, people who think they could have SARS in China, are reluctant to turn themselves in. They fear the government more than the disease.”
“My colleague in China started a trip from down near Hong Kong at the beginning of April, and traveled through Beijing and into northern China (Jilin Province). The only place SARS awareness existed was in Beijing.”
“The Chinese government appreciates media manipulation and SARS caused the “spin machine” to go into overdrive.”
“So before SARS gets too far or we discover a new deadly disease, here are a few things we need to remember about China in the twenty-first century:
*There is no effective, centrally managed organization like the Centers for Disease Control in China.
*The Chinese government has a track record of covering up bad news like the outbreak of an infectious disease.
*China is a densely populated nation with cultural and sanitation standards and methods more than a century behind that of the western world.
*Many citizens of China fear their oppressive government and have a tendency to keep problems to themselves.
*China tends to “fake” efficiency and effectiveness in a lame attempt to manipulate the media.
Before the outbreak of the next vicious, deadly disease, we need to discuss these problems with China.”
Now back to 2007. What has changed in China in 2007 with regard to:
* food and ingredient inspection?
* announcing a crisis in the media?
* getting to the bottom of problems in a disciplined and orderly way?
* proving sufficient quality medical care to a population of 1.3 billion?
* “playing by the rules” of good business, good research and good medicine as defined by Europe and the U.S.?
The answer: China has a booming economy and has made progress on many fronts but China also hhas a lousy culture of corruption that potentially endangers the world food supply. This situation is exacerbated by a culture of clamming up the news media to hide government shortcomings and a medical system, that in many parts of China, is “third world” at best.
China’s culture of corruption, that is, getting more for less, playing tricky business games, and substituting low quality ingredients and then selling the product at top dollar to the unsuspecting customer, drags down everything good the current communist government of China proclaims.
We should be shocked to learn that cheaper, inferior ingredients have been slipped into pet food and animal feed while we pay full price for the good stuff? When China is the largest producer of pirated DVDs, books and other copyrighted products, costing western authors, artists and corporations tens of billions of dollars a year?
So we just get our Food and Drug Administration to work with the Chinese to start solving the food chain dangers, right?
Not so fast.
The first task might be to rid China’s food system of melamine, the chemical most to blame.
But when New York Times reporter David Barboza completed a fine piece of investigative journalism on May 4, 2007, he wrote, “Of course, the search for melamine in China could be an enormous undertaking, because animal feed producers have admitted in interviews here that they have been cheating customers for years by mixing melamine into animal feed.”
And finally this. In a similar effort to decrease manufacturing costs and increase profit, an antifreeze and solvent called diethylene glycol that can kill humans, was discovered in pharmaceutical supplies manufactured in Panama. The diethylene glycol was found to have come from China labeled as sweetener. Over 100 people who have used the products have died.
The New York Times also reported on May 6, 2007 that, “Over the years, the poison has been loaded into all varieties of medicine — cough syrup, fever medication, injectable drugs — a result of counterfeiters who profit by substituting the sweet-tasting solvent for a safe, more expensive syrup, usually glycerin, commonly used in drugs, food, toothpaste and other products.”
Reporters Walt Bogdanich and Jake Hooker found that, “Toxic syrup has figured in at least eight mass poisonings around the world in the past two decades…. records and interviews show that in three of the last four cases it was made in China, a major source of counterfeit drugs.”
And is America able diplomatically, scientifically, and culturally of encouraging reform in China?
I doubt it.
Read our 2003 Washington Times Commentary on China and SARS: